Right, you’ve had our Top 50 Albums of the year. This one is all about the songs that properly resonated with us in 2016 – sure, if you want to talk about popularity then you can have your Drakes and whatnots. But we’re plumbing a different depth here, and while those tracks are all pretty great, here’s what sung to us the most in the last 12 months (with a handy playlist at the end as usual).
50. Alicia Keys – In Common
In which Mama Soul returns to her roots, but firmly keeps her feet in the present. Keys may have delivered her best album to date, but it was this song before it all that really reminded everyone that she isn’t to be forgotten. This one’s your secret leftfield club-ready choice, but one you’ll doubtless be thanked for.
49. Corbu – Polygon Forest
It wasn’t a great year for the psych-leaning crowd, so Corbu (strangers to us before this song) really repped on Polygon Forest. That twilight synth backing makes for the ideal setting as the duo layer guitar, melody, and some proper air-punch moments to proceedings. Not a bad shout at all if you’re into that kind of thing. Which we are. Duh.
48. Nao – Get To Know Ya
In which a hyped act delivers, and then some. There was so much unrelenting goodness on the album, but Get To Know Ya really sums up what Nao is all about: punchy beats mixed with a catchy R&B melody, and songs that instantly bridge contemporary and classics in her inimitable way. An outright star.
47. Mark Pritchard – Beautiful People (feat. Thom Yorke)
This one starts like some sort of reiki session, but stick with that flute and wait for Thom Yorke to join. The result is some sort of country retreat brand of alternative music, but it’s also a rather lovely, layered portrait that deserves to be heard. Radiohead may have overshadowed anything else Yorke did this year, but do make time for these Beautiful People.
46. Kanye West – Fade
Yes, there was that one about fucking Taylor Swift and that Ultralight Beam, but the one that really made Pablo sing was Fade. Partly due to mesmerising video, partly due to the inventive use of samples on a song that reminds us – despite all his issues, narcissism, and Trump-love – that when Kanye gets it right, no one in the game can even touch him.
45. Beth Orton – Moon
When we first heard this track we did the biggest double take 2016 had ever seen. Guitar-strumming Radio 2 fodder Beth Orton going electronic? Surely not. And yet it fits her better than any of us could have hoped, as she traverses octaves with ease before the beats gallop along with her for a pacy, punchy, and memorable new vibe.
44. Dutch Uncles – Big Balloon
A late entry from a band who only just recently released a new album, and yet this from a forthcoming one tops anything from there. This is where Dutch Uncles are reaching their festival-darling status, as this one encompasses the very British indie vibes we love. “Make we swoon like a big balloon,” they say as we’re already doing exactly that.
43. Flume – Never Be Like You (feat. Kai)
We’d never heard of Kai before, but it’s a name we won’t forget thanks to Flume. The producer has always been better at singles than full-length records, and this one proves it with its skittish yin-yang approach of soulful verse and machine-gun chorus. “I’m only human can’t you see/ I made a mistake,” sings the vocalist in her star-making turn, in a line that everyone ought to recognise and love this year.
42. Radiohead – Daydreaming
Yes, Radiohead came back and an entire generation of Guardian readers got a hard-on that didn’t relent for about three weeks. Understandable sometimes with the fragility of a song like Daydreaming, which hypnotises you with its piano repetition before Thom Yorke’s lullaby vocals add another layer and the song slowly starts to rouse in its own cinematic way. One of their most gorgeous to date.
41. Lou Rhodes – All I Need
We don’t half love our folk flex, and no one fulfils that better than Lou Rhodes. Yep, it’s what you expect from the genre – “sweet mother nature” and all that – but the pastoral vibes are rather refreshing, especially with the innocence Rhodes brings. If life is about being content with your lot, then Rhodes has it nailed.
40. ALA.NI – Suddenly
ALA.NI is from another world. An old-time place where piano bars and jazz lounges are de rigueur, and this Paris-based Londoner is the queen of it all. Her melodies sit in this snowglobe (perfect for Christmas, by the by) and yet she seems 100% fresher than any soul-singing wannabe pretender that emerges every other week. So much love.
39. Rihanna – Needed Me
While Work kept the public going, the discerning RiRi fans had a lot more fodder in Anti. For us, it was Needed Me – yep, home of the line “didn’t they tell you I was a savage?” – that reminded us why Rihanna is at the stage she’s at. It’s also a covert and delightful fuck-off to the We Found Love crowd, as this is where pop and R&B ought to meet in a most honest – and most Rihanna – way imaginable.
38. Delorean – Epic
It’s a long ‘un but a good ‘un. From the sky-high electronica that feels like rocket flight to the the dreamy little verses that match it so wonderfully, this is one that felt like it could send this lot to the stratospheric side of indie in more ways than one. Add to that its timely arrival over the summer, it really is quite hard to find fault in any aspect.
37. Lapsley – Heartless
“Space, distance, and a backbench post/ These are the times I suffer the most/ Night stretches beyond the darkness/ Wraps around me and I wake up heartless,” sings Lapsley on the standout track from her album. It’s the simple piano-and-beat backing that lets her do her thing, keeping it simple and yet somehow filling the space, ironically for a song with that name, more heart than anything else.
36. Snakehips – Cruel (feat. ZAYN)
If there’s an argument for Zayn Malik just being a featured artist – because we genuinely believe his solo album isn’t – then it’s this song. He’s confident, he’s comfortable, and he dominates that beat so hard that it even makes the line “looping round like CCTV” palatable. A victory for the 1D breakout, and a huge win for the producers behind it.
35. All Saints – One Strike
Comeback of the year? The album maybe not, but this song was certainly played by us enough to argue that case. As lead singles goes, this was both everything we hoped from All Saints and yet nothing we expected. Those harmonies are still on-point, the notes still linger from the 90s, and the sentiment of a woman scorned is still alive and well. Welcome back, ladies.
34. Christina Aguilera – Telepathy (feat. Nile Rodgers)
Yes, you’re read it correctly. Christina Aguilera – of Lotus fame, the very same – nailed her feature on The Get Down OST. While Britney sank like a ghost turd, Xtina displayed sass and brass-backed class as she delivered this one so perfectly it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it justice.
33. Lady Gaga – A-YO
Someone’s been watching a lot of Nashville. Joanne was a most pleasing if uneven album, but this is Lady Gaga doing country in the way she knows how: rasping at the right times, clapping along with euphoria, and giving it the full-on bombastic hoedown blues-bar vibe that will just. Not. Let. Up. Honestly one of our top five Gaga songs of all time (narrowly pipping Joanne’s searing title track, of course).
32. Banks – Gemini Feed
“And to think you would get me to the altar/ Like I’d follow you around like a dog needs water.” As far as opening lines go, it’s quite something. In a year of people largely lamenting relationships, this quiet power anthem from a hugely underrated album is one to keep close for all those break-ups. This is how you do a kiss-off, everyone.
31. Francis and The Lights – Friends (feat. Kanye West & Bon Iver)
In one of the stellar albums of the year, Francis enlists his own Friends for a song that makes the best use of its star-studded cast. It’s more restrained than you’d think given the involvement of Kanye West and Bon Iver, but it easily feels like the best use of them in all its twisty vocoded wonder.
30. Mura Masa – What If I Go? (feat. Bonzai)
Bonzai is a full-on star in her own right, but by the Christ didn’t Mura Masa cement that status on this lightweight (in the best way) summer jam. The beats are elastic, the performance breezy, and the resultant smiles neverending.
29. Angel Olsen – Never Be Mine
Often delving beyond the singles is what yields the gold. Angel Olsen almost sounds a little intoxicated on her confessional Never Be Mine, the uglier side of realisation that we’re quite scared to recognise but one that Olsen nails so masterfully that she deserves every accolade the year has given her.
28. Dawn – Baptize
While Dawn Richard delivered a fine full-length album this year, it was her Infrared EP that really made her special. These are four tracks representing perfect (yes, perfect) R&B, making it hard to pick a standout but Baptize has to be the one. It shimmers, it shuffles, and it marks her out as a total star.
27. Bon Iver – 00000 Million
Another album where choosing one standout was always going to be difficult, but the closing track certainly seems like the one. After the emotional and sonic maelstrom before it, 00000 Million is the calm, a simple piano-backed ballad that feels like both a familiar Bon Iver and the confirmation of his bright new phase.
26. BADBADNOTGOOD – In Your Eyes (feat. Charlotte Day Wilson)
This lot came back in style this year, but it was their employment of breakout star Charlotte Day Wilson that really communicates their sense of class. This resplendent old-school R&B jam is just so blummin’ gorgeous with its use of Wilson’s husky tone that we really can do nothing but swoon.
25. Roosevelt – Colours
If you wanted superlative disco-tinged ance-pop this year, then this track is the absolute one. Germany-based producer Roosevelt has us grooving from the very moment this euphoric jam starts, that glitterball vibe being matched in its enormity by a chorus that can probably join us in our grave we love it so damn much.
24. Matoma – False Alarm (feat. Becky Hill)
When we first played this song to a friend, their immediate question was to ask who the hell this Adele-like vocalist was. That’s young Becky Hill, well deserving of international fame by now, with Matoma proving she can have it with the right beat. This one is a grower, but when it hits you you’ll never want to part from it.
23. Warpaint – New Song
If New Song is your introduction to Warpaint, you’re going to be disappointed. Everything about feels like the crossover fem-pop smash this lot should be, a danceable hit that’s near-perfect in its architecture and catchy chorus. But it’s a red herring in their larger, drearier catalogue so let’s be thankful we have this at least.
22. Kaytranada – Together (feat. AlunaGeorge & GoldLink)
It was hard to choose between this and Kaytra’s Syd feature on his album, but just like Disclosure did for White Noise, so too has the producer given them a song way more memorable than their own album. From the shuffling beat to the tremendous chorus, this is the sort of level the duo should forever aim for.
21. LIV – Wings Of Love
PPOK favourite Lykke Li hasn’t delivered solo material for a while, but anything she touches turns platinum. As part of the super-group LIV, she indulges her psych-folk side and conjures up an old-school jam that’s impossible to dislike, and still very much in the vein of everything we’ve come to love from her. Well, if it’s taken several E pills on the way.
20. Tove Lo – True Disaster
Say what you want about Tove Lo – and, urgh, so many people did – but she can still write a banger to blow her competition out of the water. True Disaster was that song, another flaws-and-all depiction of her life set once again to the sound of impeccable pop that ought to remind everyone to pipe the fuck down when it comes to this lady doing exactly what she wants.
19. Yumi Zouma – Keep It Close To Me
There’s just something about that cadence. Dream-pop merchants Yumi Zouma broke free of their past EPs and band changes to provide an album that sung with twinkly charm, with this lead single not only being one of their most memorable, it’s also a strong advocate of how simplicity and intimacy really make the best musical bedfellows.
18. Tegan & Sara – U-Turn
Fuck-yous don’t get better than this one from the twins. Tegan & Sara aren’t candyfloss on their new album, and it’s summed up rather nicely on this track as they bare both their flaws and the shortcomings of the ex. “Gimme a second let me u-turn/ write you the love song you’ve earned” – well, they’ve most certainly done that.
17. Shura – What’s It Gonna Be?
Pop’s new big (and most intelligent) star – the lovely Ms Shura – certainly cemented a great song with a great video, but it’s still that foundation we swoon over. Like a playground sprint, this one is high-energy from the get-go, a gallop of a song that just adds layers of sunshine to its innocence. It really doesn’t get more lovable than this.
16. RÜFÜS – Say A Prayer For Me
Alright, when we went to see this lot perform in London earlier this year it was full of Aussie louts, but hell is it worth enduring for this number. This s where the trio truly went international, and to be honest dance didn’t see a better crossover or more uplifting outing than this tremendously-produced earworm.
15. Arthur Beatrice – Real Life
We know we keep harping on about millennials this year, but Arthur Beatrice are kinda approaching what happens next: the assumption of responsibility, the realisation of what the previous generation did for us to be here. A song about parenting sounds dull as fuck, but the way it’s framed by this exceptional lot (especially that huge chorus) makes it unmissable.
14. Chairlift – Crying In Public
Caroline Polachek is a powerhouse. We know that from all of her Charlift work, her Bey co-writes, and her live performances. But this, THIS is the doozy. The finger-click breeziness that opens the gates of the most self-aware vulnerability, that person we’ve all been in a relationship when our emotions get the best of us and an equation seems imbalanced. After it all we just want to hug her, ourselves, and pretty much everyone looking remotely sad.
13. School of Seven Bells – Ablaze
Any fan of School of Seven Bells will find it difficult to listen to the duo’s final album after the untimely death of Benjamin Curtis. And especially difficult is this frantic flurry of a song that both seems uplifting in its celebration of what Curtis and Alejandra Deheza’s relationship was, but also a truly devastating eulogy on him as a human being. We’re still welling up at it now, to be honest.
12. Flock of Dimes – Semaphore
Fact: we didn’t really know what the name for flag-signalling was until Semaphore came along. In it, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner nails everything we love about alt-pop as she describes how tired she is of game-playing. “But I cannot need you more, too far gone for the semaphore,” she repeats, and it’s phrasing that will stick with you long after the song is over.
11. Billie Marten – Lionhearted
We’d already charted young Billie Marten’s Unaware on our lists last year, but her stellar album this year yielded some newer gems. One such is Lionhearted, the sort of vulnerable acoustic folk that Marten specialises in, but one once again that wears its heart on its sleeve in the classiest way. A true highlight and a modern classic.
10. Chance The Rapper – All Night (feat. Knox Fortune)
How to get any party started this year: pop on All Night. Rap’s most fun little tearaway and all-round scamp makes maximum use of the Kaytranada beat for a song that may only be 2:21 long but could probably be repeated, well, all night. “I don’t trust no one,” he says about his newfound fame and hangers-on, resulting in a portrait of a man even more endearing as he eschews all the perks his peers garishly revel in. What a guy.
9. Daughter – New Ways
Normally an album released in January would be forgotten about come December, but Daughter aren’t ever going to let something like that happen. Not when they have a song like New Ways, a brooding and breathtaking song that’s arguably one of the best they’ve ever done. “I’m just trying to get out, find a subtle way out, not just cross myself out, not just disappear,” sings Elena Tonra as we wonder whether she’s talking about the vicious romantic cycle she’s ensconced in or about life itself. Either way, it’s a gut-punch knockout.
8. Mitski – Happy
Best allusion to ejaculation this year comes from Mitski, whose Puberty 2 delivered Happy. “Happy came to visit me… he laid me down, and I felt Happy come inside of me,” she sings on this searing track (with an equally fantastic video). A large trope across all genres this year seems to be millennial disillusionment and feeling unfulfilled, which Mitski illustrates rather brilliantly as she still clings on to the remnants of her one-nighter. “If you’re going, take the train/ so I can hear it rumble, one last rumble/ And when you go take this heart/ I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you.” It’d be melodramatic if it weren’t so knowing, and in the hands of Mitski it’s a veritable treat.
7. Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Relationships are never fun, and no one communicated their ugly side this year better than Emma Ruth Rundle. The title track from her new album, Marked For Death is a bit of a warped moment of heavy alt-rock that could be read into as a mutually destructive co-dependent. “Who else is gonna love someone like you that’s marked for death?” she asks, almost a subliminal put-down that comes full circle as the same question is directed back at herself. Whatever you extrapolate from it, there’s no doubt it’s a searing, unflinching, and unforgettable take.
6. Solange – Cranes In The Sky
While Knowles the Elder was quotable in the bombastic sense (see next track), the first of two Solange tracks in our list was quotable on a different level. Cranes In The Sky narrowly misses out on our top five in favour of the album track that sums up the M.O. more directly, but there’s no doubt that this one is a sumptuous beauty that carefully dresses its race-based disillusionment with daydream melody, harmonies as high as those eponymous structures, and a sense of ennui that’s general enough to reach out to a wider audience.
5. Beyoncé – Formation
In some ways, Formation was a bit of a red herring in the Lemonade campaign, and the reason we didn’t love this record (or the subsequent tour) as much as her previous work. The conversation around both these things turned to sordid relationship sleuthing and quotable one-liners (give the Becky thing a rest now, white people) rather than what it should have been: the Superbowl performance, the social media commentary that didn’t really translate to her music, and this song that see Beyoncé finally taking vocal ownership of her background with one of her finest songs to date. She’s the fire to her sister’s ice-cool approach, a soul rightfully angry but turning it into an masterclass in political R&B.
4. Ariana Grande – Into You
Find us a better pop song this year. Seriously – Ms Grande’s album may have been a bit of a disappointment but what better single for it (and her) to be remembered by than this one. We’d even go as far as to say that Into You is perfect in the way it combines new and old pop tropes to create the ideal structure: the dream three-way of verse, bridge and chorus (that chorus though) topped off by Grande’s most effortless and confident performance to date. “A little less conversation and a little more touch my body” just became the defining line for a generation, to be honest.
3. James Blake – Modern Soul
“I want it to be over, I want it to be over”. Words uttered in various permutations over the years, but never as utterly and painfully believable as when they came from James Blake’s Modern Soul this year. Whether that phrase is about the relationship or the feeling after it, Modern Soul seems like both an appropriate genre label for Blake and also very much summation for what is the contemporary break-up song. This isn’t the Adele-level gut-wrench warbling, instead the mopey millennial sound of a love crystallised in all its joy and pain, cemented with inventive arrangements, and one that will make you weep with both sympathy and empathy.
2. Solange – F.U.B.U.
Yep, two songs by Knowles Jr in our top ten. But if there’s one track that pipped even Cranes In The Sky from our favourite album of the year, it’s F.U.B.U. or, elaborated, “For Us By Us”. The reason? It sums up the ethos of the record in a way that not many songs do: Solange’s exasperation is slight (“when a nigga try to board they plane/ and they ask you what’s your name again/ cos they thinking yeah you’re all the same”) but her message is so marvellously clear. POCs may have conquered the world but we’ll always be downtrodden by those with the superiority complex, humiliated the way Solange has very publicly been because of stereotypes, and yet this is how we choose to react: with soaring, mellifluous R&B tones, tip-toed brass backing, and the muted but resolute words that says we don’t need to raise a riot to firmly let you know we’re not going anywhere.
1. Frank Ocean – Pink + White
In a year mired in despair and tragedy, there was no take that seemed more rose-tinted even in its acceptance than Pink + White. Even when Frank Ocean declares “it’s all downhill from here”, it’s surrounded by a host of emotion: nostalgia, the comfort of the familiar, and the celestial sound of acceptance. That’s the beauty of this song and the reason it sits at the top of our list this year, especially given 2016 has been the sort of 12 months that desperately needs it.
Co-written with Pharrell and – shock – Tyler The Creator (depending on which source you believe), the delicate piano and light string arrangement takes in the best and warmest side of all the artists involved for something that tackles the inevitable elements of life (fear, mortality) and makes peace with them in the most beautiful way imaginable. All that and we haven’t even touched on the fact that a little-known lady jumps in on the end; only Frank Ocean could relegate Beyoncé to backing-vocal status and still, somehow, have her elevate this song to a goosebump-inducing level with heavenly harmonies, touching the sky referenced in the title and looking down on all this shit with carefree bliss.